There have been few Hollywood actors who could match George Sanders for supercilious nastiness onscreen (and perhaps off as well).
As drama critic-narrator Addison de Witt in 1950’s All About Eve, he gave what critic David Thomson describes as a supreme demonstration of soft-spoken, tranquil caddishness.
He also stole the show, and won an Oscar in the process. The movie was easily the best of Sanders’ 36-year film career, which spanned more than 110 films stretching from 1936, shortly after he emigrated to Hollywood, to 1972, the year he took his own life.
Although he put time in studio costume clunkers and productions that went nowhere (he played in drag in John Huston’s 1970 misadventure, The Kremlin Letter), he worked in movies from a roster of distinguished directors including: Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, John Ford, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini and John Ford.
Enjoying Sanders at his best is something akin to a guilty pleasure. You can delight in his performances and at the same time feel a bit guilty. But we say, resist the guilt and admire.
Although Sanders played lead roles in some 30 titles, he proudly viewed himself as a character actor. Stars fade, he figured. But character actors keep working, which Sanders appreciated since he was always conscious of the value of a buck.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to introduce the first of our series of blogs on George Sanders. We’ll cover his private life, his career, his older brother, actor Tom Conway, and his romantic misadventures with Zsa Zsa Gabor.
And, with the help of author Richard VanDerBeets’ concise and informative 1990 biography, George Sanders: An Exhausted Life, we’ll explore the circumstances of his death. No, contrary to legend, the actor DID NOT in any sense die of boredom.
It may surprise you to discover that Sanders was an athlete in his younger days, a confident and skilled boxer and an admirer of Greco-Roman wrestling. He discussed wrestling at length with Mike Mazurki, the hulking 6-foot 5 inch character actor who memorably played Moose Malloy in 1944’s Murder My Sweet and appeared with George in 1949’s Samson and Delilah (talk about odd couples).
Also something of a surprise, he was a capable piano player. Sanders also was a pretty good singer, a mellifluous baritone that almost won him the lead in the Broadway musical South Pacific replacing former opera star Ezio Pinza. (Terrified about appearing before live theater audiences, Sanders suddenly came down with a last-minute backache both severe and mysterious in origin, and withdrew from his contract.)
Sanders developed a close friendship with Tyrone Power, one of Hollywood’s most appealing and successful leading men. The two costarred in director King Vidor’s biblical epic, Solomon and Sheba, filmed in Spain and released in 1959.
After several strenuous sword-fight scenes with Sanders, Power — who also co-produced the picture — collapsed complaining of pains in his chest and arms. The end came on Nov. 15, 1958, before the movie was completed. Power was just 44 years old. (He was replaced by Yul Brynner)
In his 1960 book about himself — Memoirs of a Professional Cad — Sanders noted that when stars became producers, their attachment to money tends to grow. They start saving, acquiring financial acumen.
This of course was not true of all of them — Ty Power’s attitude for instance was different. He spent his money freely. He had a yacht, a private aeroplane, and gave lavish parties. And women, who are usually more expensive than yachts and aeroplanes, found ways of spending his money when he ran out of ideas.
Ty didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps he had some premonition that he did not need to save for his old age.
Sanders eulogized his friend with these words: I shall always remember Tyrone Power as a bountiful man. A man who gave freely of himself. It mattered not to whom he gave. His concern was in the giving. I shall always remember his wonderful smile, a smile that would light up the darkest hour of the day like a sunburst. I shall always remember Tyrone Power as a man who gave more of himself than it was wise for him to give. Until in the end he gave his life.
Yes, Sanders could be poetic. And he could portray the suave cad better than anyone. But the actor himself was a lot more complicated. Please stay with us as we delve deeper into various aspects of his life and amazing career.